Chicago's Iroquois Theater Fire of 1903

About the Iroquois Theater fire in Chicago in 1903, history of the disaster or tragedy, the aftermath and destructon.


It was a raw winter day in the windy city of Chicago, the temperature a shivering 8 deg. below zero. Prices of the bargain matinee at the "fireproof" Iroquois Theater attracted a large audience of mothers and children to see a performance of Mr. Bluebeard, starring young Eddie Foy. Including performers and stagehands, the plush entertainment palace that boasted 30 exits was packed with 2,400 people.

Just into the 2nd act, in a musical number called "In the Pale Moonlight," one of the bevy of high temperature carbon-arc lamps that created the illusion of moonlight, brushed against a painted canvas wing. The canvas caught fire. In seconds, other gauze drops, ropes, and props were ablaze. The heavy asbestos fire curtain was lowered to keep the flames backstage. The orchestra began to play a loud overture and comedian Eddie Foy stepped to center stage. But already 2,000 panicked people were fighting their way toward dark, unlighted exits.

When: Early afternoon on Wednesday, December 30, 1903.

Where: Chicago's famous Iroquois Theater.

The Loss: 589 people died.

The Cause: In 1903 Chicago still hadn't fully recovered from the episode of Mrs. O'Leary's cow in 1871. Architects and builders were super cautious about fire. Stone, marble, and steel had replaced many of the wooden firetraps of the 19th century. Still, little if any thought was given to narrow dimly-lit hallways, 90 deg. turns and inflammable decorative materials. Emergency exits were poorly marked, if at all, and no systematic inspection was made to ensure their usableness if needed. Furthermore, no one understood crowd or mob thinking, or the lack of it, in panic conditions. Safe evacuation from burning buildings was possible, but only under ideal conditions.

The Disaster: No alarm was given when the fire broke out. It didn't seem serious enough. The fire spread quickly from the canvas wing to other drops of muslin and gauze. In seconds, ropes, props, 2nd curtains, and catwalks were ablaze. The suddenness and unexpectedness of a fire in the fireproof theater caused a lack of action. Fire extinguishers were filled with powder rather than liquid chemicals. They had insufficient pressure to reach the flaming materials. No water hoses were attached to standards.

Eddie Foy had the presence of mind to signal for the fire curtain to be lowered and the orchestra to break into an overture. These actions, along with Foy's improvised entertainment in the face of danger, saved some 600 lives. Praising Foy's actions, later, George Williams, Chicago's building commissioner, said: "It could have been a few less than that, or maybe more."

For 8 terrible minutes that seemed like hours, there was bedlam. Moving like a herd of spooked steers, people stampeded to reach exits only to find them frozen shut. Few deaths were actually caused by the fire. Smoke inhalation inspired fright, and as a result people were trampled to death. The fire was extinguished with but little damage to the theater, but the death toll that day in Chicago will long be remembered as a major tragedy.

Aftermath: When the investigation of the fire was completed, the arc-light operator was cited for criminal negligence. The tragedy itself inspired many construction changes and countless new safety regulations. Proper fire extinguishers were made mandatory; exit doors were to be kept operable; water hoses and standards were on the regular inspection list; fireproof ropes, drops, and props were a must; and design changes in all old and new buildings included wider hallways without 90 deg. turns.

Tomorrow: For as long as man plans and builds for profit, there will be tragedies, and experience must be a patient teacher. Progress in the things that count is always the tortoise, but perhaps in time foresight, wisdom, and concern will be victorious over ignorance, greed, and apathy.

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